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Transavanguardia - The Progressive Movement of the Italian Modern Scene

December 19, 2016
Studied Photography at IED in Milan, Italy. Passionate about art, frequent visitor of exhibitions, Widewalls photography specialist and Editorial Manager.

In 1979, Italian art critic and curator Achille Bonito Oliva wrote an introduction for an exhibition he organized in the town of Genazzano. Titled Le Stanze (The Rooms), the show gathered a small group of young painters whose practices seemed to have revived the Expressionist painting at a time when Conceptual art ruled art tendencies to its full potential. In order to describe their work, Oliva coined the term transavanguardia, or trans-avant-garde, announcing the beginning of an international phenomenon which took place in the late 1970s and throughout the 1980s, and became one of the most influential movements of Post-war Italian art along with Arte povera.

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Mimmo Paladino – Untitled, 1980. Mixed media on canvas paper, 147 × 325 cm. Image via accademiaravenna.net

Transavanguardia – The Return to the Past

Departing from the dominant idea of the conceptual in art and the original avant-garde’s “hysteria for the new”, transavanguardia aimed to return to the traditional act of painting, one that elicited emotion – especially joy – and provided some meaning. The artists created paintings, drawings and sculptures that intentionally belonged to figurative art and employed neglected imagery such as the mythical symbols, which marked the movement’s highlight years. These artworks revealed the excitement behind every brushstroke, every line and hue of color, the very texture of the canvas. According to Oliva himself, transavanguardia relied heavily on the materialism of techniques and new materials, rejecting the “catastrophe” enacted by conceptual ideas and recuperating the intensity of painting, the image, the narrative.

Left: Nicola De Maria – Sera, 1982-83. Acrylic and mixed media on canvas, 69,6 x 49,5 cm. Galerie Thomas, Monaco / Right: Sandro Chia – Hand Game, 1981. Oil on canvas, 199 x 153 x 4,5 cm. Private collection, Rome

Artists Beyond the Avant-Garde

The transavanguardia movement was marked by five prominent figures, whose artworks drew attention at the 1980 Venice Biennale for their diverse styles and common vision. The exhibition gave these indidivuals an opportunity to compete for a place on the international art market, dominated by significant figures and tendencies from the United States. Relying on strong narratives, painters Francesco Clemente, Enzo Cucchi, Sandro Chia, Mimmo Paladino and Nicola De Maria re-created a strongly expressive language which oozed in vibrant color, the depth of space, the passage of time and the freedom of technique. The paintings they produced offered a variety of personal interpretations of these notions: from Sandro Chia and his influence by Futurism and even Mannerism, the many materials of Enzo Cucchi, such as ceramics, wood, neon and steel, the almost childish quality of works by Nicola De Maria, Mimmo Paladino’s totemistic canvases and, of course, Francesco Clemente’s haunting portraits.

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Francesco Clemente – Fourteen Stations n.III, 1981-82. Oil on linen, 198 x 236 cm. Thomas Ammann Fine Art AG, Zurich

The Legacy of Achille Bonito Oliva and his Movement

Transavanguardia’s quest to revive the potential of painting by drawing inspiration from the history of art itself, as well as classical mythology, popular culture and national symbolism, went beyond Italy’s border along with Francesco Clemente. His works became a seminal part of Neo-Expressionism, further influencing the production of fellow creatives like Jean-Michel Basquiat, Jonathan Borofsky, David Salle and Julian Schnabel. In Germany, the impact of the movement can be found within the Neue Wilden, a Berlin-based group composed of Helmut Middendorf, Rainer Fetting e Salomé. All of these talented individuals fought the artistic establishment of their time, creating a different kind of the Western cultural heritage that continues to celebrate art for art’s sake and served as a reference for many contemporary names to follow.

 read our privacy terms on our home page and provide us with feedback Editors’ Tip: The Italian Trans-avantgarde

This book is a dossier dedicated to Transavanguardia, written by its own founder Achille Bonito Oliva. In summary, we can find chapters such as “The arts of ‘art”, and those dedicated to each of the artists who have marked it and built it to become as we know it today. Like all monographs in the series “Dossier d’art”, this proved to be an agile publication, full of beautiful color reproductions of artworks, complete with a useful chronological framework and an extensive bibliography. The texts are written in Italiano, English and French for art lovers on an international scale and they are the first theoretical text on this short but impactful artistic movement in Italy.

Featured images: La transavanguardia italiana exhibition at Palazzo Reale, Milan 2012, via artribune.com; Francesco Clemente – Midnight Sun II, 1982. Oil on canvas, 2010 x 2507 cm. Tate Collection; Flyer of the Transavanguardia exhibition at Milan’s Palazzo Reale, via gommonauti.it; Achille Bonito Oliva, via artribune.com; Enzo Cucchi – Eroe senza testa, 1981. Oil on canvas, 203 x 254 cm. Castello di Rivoli Museo d’Arte Contemporanea. All images used for illustrative purposes only.